Friday, February 28, 2014

Is Higher Education Rehabilitative? (Read: Should inmates receive a college education?)

This morning, Inside Higher Ed reported on New York Governor +Andrew Cuomo's plan to provide the option of a college education to inmates in about 10 of New York's state prisons.  Not surprisingly, it's become a hot topic.  Opponents of the plan are raising questions about the fairness of providing a free college education to "crooks," while New York's law-abiding citizens are struggling to find ways to finance higher education.  And, in one of the more bone-headed things I've read recently, State Assemblyman +Jim Tedisco claimed that the program would just produce "smarter criminals."  Advocates for Cuomo's proposal argue that investing in higher education for inmates will reduce costs in the long run by lowering recidivism rates (a claim backed up by loads of research, as well as the state of Indiana's long-running case study).

At the core of this particular issue are two questions that academia has grappled with for decades.  First, is the question of whether or not a college education is transformative (or, in this case, rehabilitative).  The assumption made by Cuomo and the backers of his proposal is that the college experience, whether that's delivered in a traditional university setting or behind bars, changes learners in fundamental ways.  Not only do they acquire new knowledge and skill, but they come to see and interact with the world in new (and, we assume, more productive) ways.

This belief in the transformative nature of education is at the foundation of the second question embedded in the current debate, which is whether a society benefits when its individual citizens are educated.  For the most part, the United States and virtually every other democratic society have, to one degree or another, agreed that an educated citizenry is a better citizenry.  So, we do things like subsidize the entire cost of public education for young children, and a percentage of the cost for those pursuing higher education at particular institutions (hence, the State College).

In sum, the vast majority of Americans believe at some level that higher education is both transformative and democratically beneficial.  So, it's a bit ironic that some of those same folks are now questioning a proposal based on those very assumptions.  While the current economic state of higher education funding, and the student debt crisis, make the thought of paying for an inmates college education a bit uncomfortable, my argument is that it is clearly in line with the underlying purposes of our correctional system.  By definition, prisons are meant to "correct" and rehabilitate.  And, experience has clearly demonstrated that education is one of the best ways for this to happen.

The reality is that the majority of inmates will not choose to take advantage of a college education if it is provided, so it's a fairly safe assumption that those who do participate will be relatively engaged and committed (which is critical if the experience is to have the transformative effect we hope for).  Consequently, it's inaccurate for anyone to assume that "every crook" will get to go to college for free.  What's more, it may not be unreasonable to expect those who benefit from the program to re-pay a portion of their educational costs.  This would add another administrative layer to the program, because it would require someone to manage and enforce re-payments, but it may not be a bad approach.

For any New Yorker who really believes

(a) Education is a shared good
(b) Education makes better citizens, and
(c) Prisons are meant to rehabilitate,

I don't know how they can simultaneously oppose Cuomo's plan on philosophical grounds.  The challenge will be for Cuomo and the SUNY system to make it work from a practical standpoint.

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